The Neglected Bridges

VG has been given access to the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (NPRA)’s digital database for bridges on national and county roads – a total of 16,971 bridges.

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Articles

Do you ever wonder how safe the bridge you’re driving on is – or how often it’s inspected?

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Or do you assume that those responsible

have everything under control?

VG can reveal that

they don’t.

Every day 100,000 people drive over this bridge.

It’s five years since it was last inspected.

It’s one of several thousand bridges that don’t get the right checks.

Rules are broken
on half of all bridges

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HØYBRÅTEN (VG) The regional units of the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (NPRA) are responsible for checking the safety of bridges in Norway. But they claim they don’t have the capacity, or money, to follow the rules.

At 8 o’clock in the morning, the E6 heading for Oslo centre is jam-packed with rush hour traffic. Every day, a hundred thousand cars drive on the motorway across the concrete bridge above the local road and the cemetery at Høybråten.

The last time this 140 metre-long motorway bridge had a thorough main inspection was in 2009. Under the regulations, a new check should have been carried out in November 2014. According to the bridge database Brutus, which VG has been given access to, this was never done. The annual basic inspection that the bridge should also have had was last performed in 2012.

This means that since 2013, the NPRA has been breaking the rules aimed at following up the legal requirement to ensure that bridges are safe for Norwegian road users to drive on.

In fact, only eight of Oslo’s 213 national road bridges have been inspected as required by the regulations, according to the NPRA's own database.

Bridges in Oslo

8 bridges inspected as required by the regulations
205 bridges not inspected as required by the regulations

The NPRA’s inspections are intended to reveal whether the bridges on national and county roads have severe damage or are in urgent need of maintenance.

Three types of inspections should be carried out regularly throughout the lifetime of the bridge:

Main inspection: Extensive check of the entire bridge over water. To be carried out every five years. Must be logged.

Basic inspection: Basic, visual check of all elements over water. To be carried out annually, but not necessary in years where a main inspection is held. Must be logged.

General inspection: Visual check of stretches of roads. Carried out from a slow-moving car, with stops in selected locations. To be carried out weekly or fortnightly. Not logged.

For short and simple bridges that meet some of the requirements, the road authorities can accept a longer time between each inspection.

For bridges at risk, the road authorities can impose a shorter time between each inspection.

Reporting

All main and basic inspections must be logged in the NPRA’s database, Brutus.

VG has for the first time been given access to and published status reports for the 16,971 bridges on Norway’s national and county roads. The reports reveal that 1087 bridges have damage that inspectors classify as ‘serious’ or ‘critical’ in relation to the load capacity or traffic safety.

How we did it

  • 1. The NPRA’s database is called Brutus. This is a bridge management system that the NPRA itself has developed. Each bridge has its own health status journal.

  • 2. In March, VG was given access to the database via PDF files for all of the 16,971 bridges on Norway’s national and country roads, where the NPRA is responsible.

  • 3. Based on these data, VG has visited 104 bridges in 15 counties.

  • 4. Analysis of the reports and VG’s own observations show that the NPRA systematically breaks the rules they are required to follow in order to ensure that Norwegian road bridges are safe.

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Brutus shows that the deadline for carrying out the annual inspections is not met for more than half of the bridges in Norway.

‘Maintenance backlogs are one thing – that’s related to grants. But a delay in checks and inspections is unacceptable. The law doesn’t allow room for backlogs here,’ says Trude Tronerud Andersen, Director of the Road Supervisory Authority (RSA).

RSA: ‘Breaking the law’

One of the RSA’s tasks is to check the NPRA’s compliance with relevant laws and regulations. The Director of RSA believes that VG’s findings cast doubt on whether the NPRA is in control of the situation.

‘Does the law say how often the NPRA should inspect the bridges?’

‘The Road Traffic Act states that road standards must be established, approved and followed. If they don’'t stick to the system, they are violating the intention of the law to have safe roads and bridges.’

Andersen points out that the road authorities have drawn up guidelines for how to comply with the legislation. When they don’t use the system, they are in breach of the legislation on roads.

Image description
CRITICAL: Trude Tronerud Andersen, Director of the RSA, is not convinced that the NPRA is in control of the condition of Norwegian bridges. Foto: Hallgeir Vågenes

‘Using this system, the NPRA needs to convince us that they have control and that it’s safe to drive on our roads,’ says Andersen.

‘Have they convinced you?’

‘No, they haven’t. We’re aware that they do more than what is registered in Brutus, which gives a slightly more balanced picture. But this doesn’t prove that they have an overview of the situation.’

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VG’s review shows that the situation is worse than average for the bridges along the busiest stretches of Norway’s roads.

‘Can we trust that the big bridges are in good condition?’

‘No, you can’t. The illustration shows that there are irregularities when it comes to both small and large bridges. Oslo has a lot of large bridge structures, but according to Brutus, main inspections aren’t always carried out. It’s not very reassuring,’ says the RSA Director.

VG has plotted the 16,971 bridges on a map of Norway, and marked the bridges that are overdue for inspection.
Inspection overdue
Inspected as required
Click here to explore the map

Not a high priority

The situation is worst in Oslo. The Eastern Region in the NPRA has confirmed that it hasn’t complied with the regulations.

Throughout 2013 and 2014, not one single main inspection was carried out in the counties of Østfold, Akershus or Oslo. This has led to a major backlog.

‘A variety of factors meant that we had to postpone the signing of a new contract, so we didn’t have a contract between 2012 and 2015,’ says Jon Prestegarden, Head of Section for Bridges in Eastern Region.

Table: Not inspected as required

See the whole table
County County Overdue main inspection (normally every 5 years) Overdue main insp. (normally every 5 years) Overdue basic inspection (normally every year) Overdue basic insp. (normally every year) Overdue main and/or basic inspection Overdue main and/or basic insp.
Source: Brutus, March 2017 (up to date at end of 2016 season)

Eastern Region adds that the contractor responsible for the roads carries out a weekly general inspection of the large bridges. According to the regulations, this means that they drive over the bridges at a slow speed and stop if they think it’s necessary to do so. These inspections are not registered in Brutus.

Prestegarden believes these inspections provide a more accurate picture of the condition of the large bridges in areas with heavy traffic, and confirms that the annual inspections are not carried out due to ‘limited internal capacity’.

The RSA reacts to Eastern Region’s response:

‘In order for the contractors to replace the single inspections, they need to get out of the car,’ says Trude Tronerud Andersen.

‘The contractors carry out general inspections on a stretch of road. An annual basic inspection of a bridge entails looking at the condition of the bridge, on top and underneath. It is the NPRA that has decided this is the way it should be done, so that they can have control.’

‘Oslo, Akershus and Østfold are saying that the main inspections in 2013 and 2014 were not carried out because there was no framework agreement?’

‘That’s an explanation, but no excuse.’

The longest bridges

With a length of 1892 metres, the motorway bridge on the E18 above the Drammen river is Norway’s longest. It’s also one of the country’s busiest stretches of road. But despite the fact that 46,000 cars drive over the bridge every single day, neither main or basic inspections were carried out last year, according to Brutus.

Alarmingly, the road authorities are in breach of the regulations in relation to the ten longest bridges in Norway, according to the database:

List: Norway’s 10 longest bridges

Drammen Motorway Bridge towards Oslo 1892 m
Last basic inspection 2000. Should be every year.
Last main inspection 2014. On schedule.
Drammen Motorway Bridge towards Tønsberg 1841 m
Built 2005, no basic inspection logged. Should be every year.
Last main inspection 2014. On schedule.
Nordhordland Bridge 1610 m
Built 1994, no basic inspection logged. Should be every year.
Last main inspection 2014. On schedule.
Sandesund East 1528 m
Last basic inspection 2004. Should be every year.
Last main inspection 2010. Should be every five years.
Sandesund West 1521 m
Built 2008, no basic inspection logged. Should be every year.
Last main inspection 2010. Should be every five years.
Mjøsa Bridge 1421 m
Built 1985, no basic inspection logged. Should be every year.
Last main inspection 2015. On schedule.
Hardanger Bridge 1380 m
Built 2013, no basic inspection logged. Should be every year.
First main inspection not yet due.
Tresfjord Bridge 1290 m
Built 2015, no basic inspection logged. Should be every year.
First main inspection not yet due.
Gjemnessund Bridge 1257 m
Last basic inspection 1996. Should be every year.
Last main inspection 2015. On schedule.
Sotra Bridge 1236 m
Last basic inspection 2002. Should be every year.
Last main inspection 2005. Should be every five years.
Source: Brutus and vegkart.no
NB: The NPRA says that not all inspections of bridges in Western Norway have been registered.
See the full list

‘Missing the deadline for a small bridge that serves a couple of farms is one thing, but failing to carry out regular and proper inspections of the largest and busiest bridges is much more of a concern,’ says Professor Kolbein Bell at the Department of Structural Engineering, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

Image description
NORWAY’S LONGEST: The new Drammen bridge with a four-lane motorway was completed in 2006. Foto: Cornelius Poppe/Scanpix

He reacts to the variation in practices in the road departments’ use of the reporting systems.

‘It certainly doesn’t sound very reassuring. Proper bridge maintenance is entirely dependent on everything that is done, or not done, being accurately recorded in Brutus in line with requirements. If not, the management loses its overview of the situation, and could be regarded as having lost control,’ Professor Bell adds.

National differences

VG’s analyses show that there are major differences in how well the local road departments and regions check and record what work has been done.

Click here to see all 16,971 bridges on the map – and read the reports for the individual bridges.

Rogaland has Norway’s oldest stock of bridges. It’s also the county that has the most severe damages registered, according to the NPRA’s own systems. But according to the bridge database, just one in every three bridges was inspected last year.

The head of the NPRA’s Western Region, Helge Eidsnes, now admits that they have failed to record information about inspections in Brutus for many years:

‘This doesn’t mean, however, that all of these statutory inspections have not been carried out. But it shows that our practice has been flawed, with information about inspections being recorded and stored in systems other than Brutus,’ says Eidsnes.

He adds that a much-needed review is to be carried out in response to VG’s questions and the criticism from the RSA, and that all information will be stored in Brutus in the future.

Believed that NPRA was in control

The RSA says that VG’s findings are familiar from previous monitoring of Western Region’s practices:

‘Our hypothesis was that they had quite good control of the bridges. That’s what’s portrayed in annual reports and the like, that they are in control of the condition of the bridges. But we see that the picture being presented does not match reality,’ says Trude Tronerud Andersen.

Image description
CONCERNED: Journalist Øyvind Engan (left) shows VG’s findings to the RSA’s roads adviser Haakon Innset and director Trude Tronerud Andersen. Foto: Hallgeir Vågenes

‘I think there are too many discrepancies between how the Directorate of Public Roads thinks it is done and how it is actually done in the regional units. The Directorate has little control centrally over what is being done,’ says Andersen.

VG has presented its analyses and several of the most severe cases of damage to four of Norway’s leading bridge experts, who are engineering professors at NTNU in Trondheim.

‘Maintaining an overview of the condition of 17,000 bridges is demanding. Maintaining control depends entirely on the NPRA using the registration system as intended,’ says Professor Terje Kanstad.

‘It was the NPRA itself that drew up the procedures for inspections and maintenance, so it’s strange that they don’t manage to follow them. The local road departments have a responsibility to use the systems that have been introduced. If they don’t, the central authorities lose their overview,’ explains Professor Kolbein Bell.

Image description
BRIDGE EXPERTS: Professor Terje Kanstad (left) and Professor Emeritus Kolbein Bell from the Department of Structural Engineering, NTNU. Foto: Jørgen Braastad

Lack of resources

Several of the regions confirm that they do not carry out the annual inspections of all national and county road bridges as required by the regulations. Reasons include: limited internal capacity, lack of resources and too narrow parameters – i.e. not enough money.

‘It’s cause for concern if the road departments don’t have the resources to meet the requirements of their own regulations. Inadequate monitoring of the bridges combined with insufficient funds to upgrade crash barriers and other faults they find can have serious consequences for road safety,’ asserts Nils Sødal, Communications Adviser in the road-user organisation NAF.

Image description
24 YEARS AGO: This 63 metre-long bridge crosses the E6 in Ås municipality. The last time a main inspection was carried out was in 1993, according to Brutus. ‘This is a simple, sturdy concrete bridge built in 1991, and we monitor it through general inspections by our contractor,’ says Jon Prestegarden, Head of Section for Bridges, Eastern Region, NPRA. Foto: Øyvind Engan

He explains that its members are generally of the opinion that maintenance of existing roads, bridges and tunnels is more important than building new ones.

‘When you’re able to demonstrate that the situation is even worse for the bridges with the most traffic, it indicates that the priorities are wrong. Bridges with heavy traffic or where traffic has increased considerably since the bridge was built, must be prioritised,’ says Sødal.

Regrettable

The Directorate of Public Roads confirms that there is a maintenance backlog to the tune of NOK 15 billion for Norwegian bridges, which is why the database shows over a thousand cases of severe damage.

‘We take the condition into account and work on the safety of the bridge in order to ensure that the load capacity is not compromised. We do not know of any bridges where the load capacity is putting traffic at risk,’ says Morten Wright Hansen, Head of Section.

Director Jane Bordal says inspections should be planned in order to maintain the best control of the situation as possible, adding that many of the busiest bridges are new. She believes the five regions should be able to prioritise the inspections within the funds they are given.

Bordal explains that the NPRA has initiated a national review of the bridge management.

‘We’ve set up an improvement project to review the entire bridge management and organisation and ensure that the requirements are more in line with our regulations. We acknowledge that the current practice is not in line with the guidelines,’ says Bordal.

Image description
WANT TO IMPROVE: Jane Bordal, Head of the Roads and Transport Department at the Directorate of Public Roads. She describes how they have initiated an improvement project to review the entire bridge management. Foto: Hallgeir Vågenes

‘The RSA believes you’re violating the roads legislation by not using the system stipulated in the guidelines?’

‘We disagree with the RSA’s remark to VG about ‘breaking the law’. The RSA hasn’t made this assertion in any of the reports from our regions. The various systems in NPRA are effective, and the Directorate’s close ongoing dialogue and guidance is positive. Shortcomings have been identified in routines, but improvements are ongoing,’ confirms Bordal.

‘But we agree that we need to improve the situation as regards inspections and recording the information. It’s regrettable that we haven’t made as much progress as we would have liked,’ she adds.

‘The bridges are safe.’

However, the Director emphasises that the road authorities do have an overview of the situation:

‘Norwegian bridges are safe,’ affirms Bordal.

‘Even if they’re not inspected in line with the regulations?’

‘We have very competent bridge inspectors in our regions, and they have a good overview of how the stock of bridges looks,’ says Jane Bordal.

‘But if this information is not registered, how can you have an overview?’

‘We’re aware there’s a delay in the inspections being registered in Brutus,’ says Bordal, adding that they have a good dialogue with the regions and that she has faith in them doing a good job.

’But why do you have these regulations if things are just as fine even when the rules are broken?’

‘The new Brutus was introduced in 2013. It's being incorporated into our system over time. Our aim is for Brutus to reflect the real situation, but we’re aware that – as the RSA has pointed out – our updating procedures aren’t good enough yet. And, naturally, that’s something we’re not satisfied with,’ she says.

Image description
ANSWERING: Director Jane Bordal and Head of Section Morten Wright Hansen brought along communications advisers Kjell Solem and Monica Knoff to the meeting with VG’s journalists Øyvind Engan and Mona Grivi Norman. Foto: Hallgeir Vågenes

VG mentions that several regions have confirmed that they have not carried out the inspections as required, and that the situation is even worse for the longest and busiest bridges, a majority of which are located in Eastern Region.

‘Yes, and Eastern Region has now initiated a new inspection regime,’ confirms Bordal.

’But is it acceptable that they went almost three years without being inspected?’

‘In any event, we’re pleased that the situation is now being dealt with,’ she concludes.

Published: 8 November 2017

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